Thursday, 4 May 2017

How My Light Is Spent – Royal Exchange Studio, Manchester

[seen 04/05/17]

One of the best things about (third round) reading for the Bruntwood Prize is occasionally getting to see a script you really liked turned into an actual living, breathing, theatre production.

Another advantage is that this pressed-for-time critic can copy-and-paste their original script report into their review and use it as a jumping off point. (I think this is ethically sound. I wrote it, and I stand by it. And, as you’ll see, I seem to write/structure script reports pretty much like I write/structure reviews – albeit for an audience of one or two, who will also read the script).

Ok, this is properly great. I’d like it very much if this script won. It doesn’t maybe make the most sense of all as a main-stage Royal Exchange Play, because it’s set in Newport. Frankly it’s the sort of thing that NTW should kill to have commissioned. But, yes, lovely, lovely silly, funny, sad, studio-play about a bloke with a crap life being made unemployed and disappearing. Literally. He really can’t see his hands at the start, and by the end he’s totally invisible. He has an amusing r/ship with a woman who works for a phone sex line. It’s a bit like an American Indie movie, and a bit like if Gary Owen wanted to write a Martin Crimp play. [In the script there are no character names, and with real-time dialogue in italics; narrative dialogue not in italics - the word "dialogue" perhaps too leading...
I really, really like it. 
It doesn’t say how it should be staged, and there are no obvious prescriptions in the writing. You could have pretty much anything from one or two people to about eight or ten. You could stage it however you liked, so obviously I’d do it like to see it done like something at the Volksbühne. But, for once, that would look like serving the text as well. It’s kind of a “minor” play, but a really enjoyable one. 
Possible objections: the male (anti-)hero gets a bit more airtime than the female, sort-of sex worker heroine. But there are more female characters than male, and they’re not really defined by their gender or sexuality, per se. I dunno. You have a look. I think it passes the feminism test, but then I’m a bloke.

[Disclaimer: the agenda of that report is all me (clearly), and the Royal Exchange has the wit to get other people do read the scripts too, so it’s not like my Deutschland-centric, feminism-concerned tastes are a guide to what’ll win the Bruntwood Prize, so don’t worry.]

So, yes, Alan Harris (as I now discover he’s called – the scripts are read totally blind)’s How My Light Is Spent is a brilliant play. And Liz Stevenson’s production is good. Re-reading my notes, and the script a bit, I’m reminded that given *anything* could have been done with the script, so it’s a shame that not more has. This production does “normalise” the thing into a sparky two-hander, though (and that doesn't feel like a bad thing to have done at all). Played in modern dress on a lovely suspended concrete strip of pavement (a lovely design by Fly Davies, imaginatively lit by Joshua Pharo), if you want a quick, one-line description of this version, think: magical-realist Welsh Disco Pigs.

Rhodri Miller and Alexandria Riley are both excellent. There’s a lugubriousness to Miller’s tall, rangy anti-hero, that feels rare in the usually-excitable world of the two-handed, multi-roled studio show. The show isn’t afraid to be a bit slow and have pauses. Similarly, Riley does a lovely line in bored and offhand. (Also, excellent “other accents” from both – it probably doesn’t take as much skill as I’m imagining to do *several different Welsh accents,* but its the sort of thing that impresses me, who can’t even do one, and I think it’s ok to be impressed by the simpler things in theatre.)

Similarly, Giles Thomas’s sound design is outstanding. I don’t know if he’s composed, or just curated and treated the music (aside from the recognisable songs – inc. a poignantly tacky appearance from Phil Collins...), but it’s beautifully done. And, more than that, with such sparse visual presentation, it’s the sound that really evokes the sense of place – coupled with a neat “talking on the phone” effect for the show’s many phone-conversation bits. (It strikes me that sound design is the place where that peculiarly English love of well-observed naturalistic details can flourish most productively, particularly in studio shows.)

Re: analysis – well, a lot of political water has passed under the bridge since I wrote that script report in Aug/Sept 2015, and it feels like the dust has yet to settle, before allowing anyone even a rough guess at what the hell we do with the present situation in theatre (the immediate impression I’m getting is that theatre will withdraw more from capital-P Politics and into more fierce examinations of the unlived life (or similar). See: This Beautiful Future as a perfect example (also maybe Rob Icke’s Hamlet. And Chekhov), and perhaps consider this as a lucky ahead-of-trend adopter).

I mean, it’s *not* “a-political”. Something that stuck more much more in performance than on the page is the sheer weight of misery in unemployment. Something which gets a chance to get under your skin a lot more when watching consistent characters, than imagining them while reading. But, equally, I was also struck more by the *slight* problems of gender in the script – just insofar as while you’ve clearly got two characters on stage, the construction of the female figure does feel like it’s been done from a male perspective (even if Stevenson’s staging militates against this as much as is possible to imagine). It’s an intriguing problem (if not *really* a pressing one, as far as this particular play is concerned). Similarly, it’s interesting that there’s no satisfactory way for any male writer to escape criticism for his portrayals of sex work – this one perhaps erring slightly into the knight-on-charger “rescue” trope, but, by the same token, avoiding charges of unrealistically glamorising or whitewashing sex work. It’s a tricky one. (In short, I do wish culture would make up its mind about things. It’s exhausting having to continually reappraise work in the light of ever-shifting attitudes and modifications in “enlightment”.)

But, yes, banging on about politics aside, this is a lovely piece. And a very able production of it. Well worth seeing.

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